Michael Mapes, rencontre de Sabbath

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The first time we saw Michael Mapes’s works we were startled by their immense creativity and novelty, first exhibited in his early “Specimen” portraiture and expounded upon in his later Dutch Masters series. Collecting hundreds of what the artist coined ‘biographical DNA’, Mapes diligently gathers anything from genealogical information, personal statistics, handwriting samples, fingernail clippings and hair strands, then reorganizes his ‘DNA’ in tiny shapes and vials before tediously layering and composing them until they form a whole.
Nearly two years later, we are thrilled to present Mapes’s new body of work (pun required), in the artist’s first solo exhibition in Asia. Entitled Anatomy of the Muse, the series explores the depiction and dissection of portrayals of women throughout Art History in the artist’s painstaking assemblage style, serving as both a commentary on the function of scientific evidence and the metaphor of deconstruction in contemporary culture.
In a celebration of the artists’s work over the last decade, this catalogue serves as a glimpse into Mapes’s artistic practice with an essential focus on this fascinating new
Examine these artworks. Map their ingredients, their components that make up a whole. You may smile when, shuffling up close and peering into the canvas, a minuscule breast adorns the flesh of a thigh. You may grimace, slightly, when a casual detail reveals itself as a fingernail or a vial of hair.
But Michael Mapes isn’t looking for the shock value. Nor do his works carry an overt implication aiming to push a social agenda. In what resembles a laboratory archive, Mapes collects, dissects and assembles distinctive qualities of his specimens, subverting the very practice he elicits. Rather than distancing the viewer from his subjects like the entomological findings of a scientist, Mapes’s “biographical DNA” reveals a depth of character and personal history that challenges the tradition of portraiture and urges us to examine the individual as more than the sum of its parts.
Nothing is quite as it seems in Mapes’ work. In his Dutch Masters series, intricately detailed represen- tations of familiar masterpieces are arranged using countless fragments. From afar, an anonymous Dutch aristocrat stares defiantly out of the canvas in an expression of pride and status, calling forth the muted rhetoric of aristocracy for which the genre is known. Upon inspection one begins to unravel evidence of the subject’s existence – photographs of family members, fabric samples, rope, coffee, tobacco, gunpowder, hair – painstakingly researched, collected and placed to breathe life into a figure long forgotten or relegated to the status of a historical concept. While ‘deconstruction’ may be the most obvious term to ascribe to Mapes’s pixilated wholes, his technique more aptly reflects a construction of lost individuality; an insistence on considering that which is camouflaged under the impersonal veneer of history.
His new series, Anatomy of the Muse, sees Mapes veering into the perilous grounds of the portrayal of women throughout art history. Reclining nudes and pin-up girls conjure a vision of voluptuous femininity constructed and marketed to the masses, a concept that originated with the voyeur of the 16th century and developed into modern arguments of the male gaze. As with most feminists, my eye has been trained to detect even the slightest hint of asymmetrical power between viewer and viewed. Resurrecting candy-coloured pin-up models from the 1950s strikes an instinctive chord of patriarchy that takes a moment to recover from. But again, nothing in Mapes’s work is quite as it seems: he has a way of cleverly infusing case and defense within the same piece, summoning critique as casually as he destabilizes it.
Who, or what, is the muse that Mapes is dissecting in his works? Greek mythology saw the muses as the goddesses of inspiration, the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne who were invoked by the poets to assist in the act of creation. In modern times, the muse has found a place within the context of artistic production as an elusive, magnetic figure often stripped of individual faculty for the sake of her creator. In her purest aspect in art history, the muse is the feminine element of the male artist – Salvador Dalí’s Gala, Edward Weston’s Tina Modotti, Pablo Picasso’s medley of models, beautiful and tortured, remembered only in their fractured depictions on canvas. In a surprising reversal of gender roles, the muse exists to penetrate the man’s soul in order for him to give birth to a creation, an act that elevates her to the status of the mythological idol yet consigns her to a theory, an impression. A portrait.
In Reclining Nude Female, a curvaceous woman sprawls lazily on an ambiguous surface. Eyes averted, she offers no obstacle for the liberal glances to her body. In her lounging state she is passive and defenseless, a pose esteemed in western art history between the 16th to 19th centuries that introduced the nude as an artistic genre in order to morally accommodate the unabashed admiration of the female form. In this piece, fragments of flesh encircle the reclining woman in a metaphorical echo of the nondescript nature of her parts. Beautiful from afar, Mapes provides his own set of similes in the visceral, slightly macabre truth that she is nothing but a composite of fleshy breasts, groins and bums.
Here a shift occurs. In both art history and this exhibition series, the introduction of the pin-up model acknowledges the element of sexual fantasy in the genre of the nude. Occupying a particular place in the latter half of the 20th century, pin-up art skirted the blade between sex and commerce that accompanied a meteoric rise of consumerism in the United States following World War II. The vocabulary of the pin-up – a term quite literally referring to the act of sticking a pin through a flimsy, disposable poster of a painted woman – offered a bolder approach to femininity that claimed to liberate both men and women from the barriers of pre-war conservatism. Risqué but not explicit, flirtatious but respectable, the good-girl-in-bad-situations of the pin-up model became a method of fabricating an idealized version of beauty and seduction. Using real women as references, famous pin-
8 up artists such as Alberto Vargas generated a fictionalized standard of perfection created to win the
Reclining Nude Female (detail) Specimen 480 – Roxanne (detail)
adoration of the male collective. Painted rather than photographed, Vargas and his constituents could eliminate the imperfection that made a woman human, standardizing her features into an almost scientific accuracy of form and proportion.
Specimen 480 – Roxanne is derived from the classic model of allure that adorned many a locker room in the 1950s. Anatomized into photographs, insect pins, specimen bags, pill capsules, false eyelashes, panty hose, and acrylic fingernails, among other contents, Roxanne becomes a presence that suggests an existence beyond the moment in which she is captured in pose.
The symbol of the muse has metamorphosed from the ethereal to the corporeal, but the act of deriving inspiration from the mythical female endures well into the contemporary milieu. An advertisement, a photograph, a pin-up, a lounging nude – these works elicit a few seconds of a glimpse before dissolving into the background. Mapes’s approach to creation shifts the passive act of looking to the more active act of experiencing, a move that by default elicits contemplation and admission. Observing the biographical DNA of the subject reveals also the DNA of the painting itself: a brushstroke, a pin askew. These works, like the women in them, are manufactured with the intention of telling a story. Painstakingly rendered, they are both portraits of an individual and a caustic reflection on the fabrication of personal and collective history.
Gili KArev


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